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Caps Seek Solution to Goaltending Puzzle

by Mike Vogel / Washington Capitals
The future of the Washington Capitals is on display here at Kettler Capitals Iceplex this week, and like the weather outside on this opening Sunday of rookie camp, it appears to be extremely bright.

Twenty-six young players – 21 of which are Washington draftees from the past five NHL Entry Drafts – took to the ice for two fast-paced workout sessions. Few of these players – defenseman Karl Alzner being the notable exception – have a realistic chance of cracking Washington’s opening night roster. But several of them have genuine hopes of playing for the Capitals in the not-too-distant future.

Ten of the players in camp were chosen in the first two rounds of recent NHL drafts. That group includes goaltenders Simeon Varlamov (first round, 23rd overall in 2006) and Michal Neuvirth (34th in 2006). Washington has a great deal of organizational depth throughout its system, but it is particularly well off in goal.
Simeon Varlamov

The Caps are hopeful that one or both of the above netminders will be able to establish himself as a No. 1 NHL netminder in the next few seasons. Both players are set to make their pro debuts this season, but it remains to be seen where each will play. Daren Machesney, a fifth-rounder (143rd overall) from the 2005 draft won 22 games for AHL Hershey last season and he also figures into a complicated organizational goaltending picture this season.

For the duration of this rookie camp and on into next week’s training camp when Machesney and NHL goaltenders Jose Theodore and Brent Johnson are present, fans and the team’s brass will be closely watching Varlamov, Neuvirth and Machesney.

There are two goaltending spots on Washington, and those will almost certainly be occupied by Theodore and Johnson. There are two more in Hershey, with Varlamov, Neuvirth and Machesney fighting it out for those berths.

“My goal coming here is to make the NHL,” declares Varlamov, via translator Slava Malamud of Sport Express. “The AHL I am looking at as plan B right now. But I do realize that it is most likely that I will probably start in the AHL.”

Barring a trade, one of Varlamov, Neuvirth and Machesney will likely have to play outside the Washington organization this season.

“We’ve got three good goalies,” says Caps general manager George McPhee, speaking of the team’s minor league system. “So we’re going to have to work something out. We’re just not sure at this point how we’ll do that. It’s not ideal, but it’s a good problem to have when you have good goalies. It will work out. People always get banged up and people get hurt. We’ll somehow find a way to make sure they have good ice time.”

Having played the last two seasons as a pro in Russia despite his youth, Varlamov might have a leg up on Neuvirth, who has played the last two seasons in the Canadian junior system.

“Bruce thought that based on summer camp that he had really come along and may be ahead of the others, but we’ll see how things progress.

“We’ll have to see how he does throughout the week. He’ll have to make an adjustment to play on the smaller rink. [There are] different angles in a North American rink. But we’re really, really pleased with our young goaltenders. We’re in good shape.

The Caps will conclude this week’s camp with a Thursday scrimmage against the Philadelphia Flyers’ rookies. Washington’s NHL club will play seven preseason games as part of its training camp, so there will be chances for the team’s braintrust to watch and evaluate all of its goaltenders over the next few weeks.
“Everybody is going to get ice time,” says McPhee. “We’ve got to find a way to have everybody get ice time. But the guys who are playing the best will play the most.”

Sending one of the three goaltenders to the Caps’ ECHL farm team in South Carolina does not appear to be an option.

“I’m not sure about that,” says McPhee. “They’re all above that level.”

That’s true, and the Stingrays also have two strong ECHL netminders under contract in Josh Johnson and Bobby Goepfert.

Loaning one of the three to another organization seems the most likely solution right now, but the Caps don’t have to decide anything right now. And there are several on-ice auditions between now and the time the team does need to make that decision.

Notes: Varlamov was asked if he was definitely committed to playing in North America this season, even if he is playing in the AHL all season. His response: “Of course” … Varlamov stated that he started out idolizing Patrick Roy, but later on began to enjoy watching Finnish goaltenders such as Kari Lehtonen, Miikka Kiprusoff and Jussi Markkanen … Varlamov is having trouble adjusting to North American cuisine. He notes that North American’s don’t eat as many soups as the Russians do, and also lets on that his gustatory fortunes have recently taken a change for the better. Since the arrival of Alex Ovechkin in the District, Varlamov has been a frequent guest at the dinner table where Ovechkin’s mom has been doing the cooking.
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